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"Dear Mr Rudd" - nothing needed on Welfare or Education?

Waiting in Tullamarine Airport on Sunday night for a flight back to Sydney, not needing food owing to large and excellent lunch with Fiona at Silex / Willow Creek vineyard, and having finished my book, I gave in and bought Robert Manne's collection of demands Dear Mr Rudd. As it turned out, I'd finished it by the time I really needed it, as Qantas took an hour and a quarter to deliver my bag, but that's another story.

It's an odd collection, the content being of highly variable style and depth of analysis, indicating that Manne's briefing of his authors must have been a tad ambiguous. Most of it is at or below the level of detail of an extended Age or Oz opinion piece: Manne is obviously happier at this superficial level, given his comment in the Introduction on the more detailed Water Management piece that "only true experts in this area will know if he is right" ...

A full third of the book is devoted to what are essentially management issues on the Republic, Federation, Parliament, etc, and the rest of the first half on defence and foreign affairs, leaving the book's subtitle Ideas for a Better Australia to be carried by the second half alone. And now here comes the interesting bit - or rather here it doesn't come. Nice, if mostly lightweight, chapters on The Economy, Health, Families (which chapter is almost entirely about childcare), Indigenous Affairs, Workplace Relations, Housing, Universities and the Arts.

What's missing from this picture? Well, Manne's Introduction tells us there is a major gap: " During this remarkably painless operation, only one aspect of the book changed. ... I had initially intended to have a chapter on possible changes to media law. I invited the person I regarded as the most cogent critic of this aspect of the Australian media to contribute. He declined." So, there we are: if the Media chapter had been there, our list of needed reforms would be complete?

But wait - let me think - we've covered pre-school, uni. workplace, health - the whole life of an Australian, surely? Oh, yes, oops, we forgot to say anything at all about Social Services and Welfare outside childcare (but then it's only 40% of total spending, twice that on Defence), and about primary and secondary Education, and tertiary Education outside Universities. We know from his Introduction quoted above, that Manne didn't even think to ask for essays on these subjects. So, are we to assume that more than half of the Commonwealth's expenditure is pretty much on course and doesn't need any reform by the incoming government? Everything at Centrelink is going well? Our schools are all working as we hope and expect?

There would be some backing for this theory from the 2020 summit agenda, where Education is subsumed under the "Productivity" agenda - whose webpage is named "Infrastructure", and where the Education discussion is introduced by these fine words (and only by these fine words):

How can parents become directly engaged in their children’s schooling in a way that really improves their child’s results? What skills will our young people need to succeed in tomorrow’s economy? What kinds of teaching and curriculum will deliver those skills? How might digital technology create new learning and teaching opportunities?"

So, if we get the curriculum right, there'd be no problem in schools? Improved results = the best of all possible worlds.

Likewise, welfare comes under "Communities and Families", and gets introduced thusly:

Social and community services operate across the country, providing everything from childrens’ services to care for the elderly. Many focus on specific issues such as housing, recreation, drug and alcohol rehabilitation or the needs of specific groups of people such as women, newly arrived refugees or people with disabilities. Services are organised under different arrangements, with funding from governments, philanthropics or community fundraising. What should the social services system look like in 2020 and beyond? Are there common reforms that need to be made to support a more socially inclusive Australia?

Apart from borrowing the UK Labour mantra of Social Exclusion - and at least putting it positively: when a good friend was Deputy Director of the Social Exclusion Unit at No.10, we used to ask her what new ideas she'd come up with to promote Exclusion this week - this isn't exactly heady stuff. So maybe we can assume that Labor's worries about "working families" don't extend to "non-working families"? I hope not, but Manne's book doesn't have any worries about them, either.

We can hope that other submissions to the summit have brought out other aspects of Education and Welfare that need attention - and we can even hope that the co-chairs will add them to the discussion at the weekend - assuming they had any prospect of even reading them - 905 submissions were received on Productivity, and 1139 on Communities and Families. Too late to submit anything more formally, but here's a space for Webdiarists to put forward their own Ideas for a Better Australia.


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2020 live on ABC2

Well, I've been watching a some of the discussions live on ABC2 - irritating that the 5 D-44 Parliamentary channels aren't being used to cover most of he plenaries, but one at a time is still better than nothing.

Although each of them has had their own quota of blowhards who are more interested in their own voice than moving things forward, there's been a surprisingly high general quality of both contributions and processes. Still too early to tell whether anything real comes out, but it already looks to me like the weekend has been productive in terms of widening the debate and helping fill in some of the holes in policy ... 


"Summary:  There are potential ... benefits to a coordinated approach to wellbeing for young people."

And this bit of self-evident commonsense cost the taxpayer how much?

"A zero tolerance approach to challenging behaviour needs to be replaced by..."

There is no zero tolerance approach:  the behaviour tolerated in the typical classroom would cause domestic violence incidents at home.

Self-evident commonsense?

Being a submission from a voluntary organisation, it cost the taxpayer however much it cost to host it on the 2020 website (say a vanishingly small fraction of a cent).

If it were self-evident commonsense it would be practised widely in Australian schools, instead of there being a huge variation from Victorian Catholic Schools, who do most of this, and some NSW public schools, who still live in the age where the best thing to do with a problem kid is to put them on the streets so they're someone else's problem - yours, in fact.

There is, in fact, no such thing as the typical classroom or the typical school, and commonsense is  pretty uncommon.

While we're on the cost, though, it is well established that a dollar spent in catching these kids and working with them early in life saves between 13 and 17 dollars of public expenditure on policing, prison etc in later life. Economic commonsense too. That's why just concentrating on skills and curriculum isn't commonsense. 

Wellbeing and education

To give you a start, here's the submission on Education from Wellbeing Australia:

Many of the negative social issues facing Australia have their roots in poor relationships, unsupportive environments, the harmful expression or management of feelings, lack of empathic understanding and denial of agency leaving people feeling powerless and disengaged.

These issues include bullying, breakdown in relationships, family and community violence, poor mental health, poor academic engagement and performance, anti-social behaviour, substance abuse and addictions, child abuse and social injustice. These incur both financial and social exclusion costs.

There are Australian government policies and programs such as the Safe Schools and Health Promoting Schools Frameworks, Values Education, Drug Education and Mindmatters that address these issues. These initiatives have a common underlying goal: to enhance student wellbeing, defined as a state of positive psychological functioning that allows students to thrive, flourish and learn. These multiple initiatives, however, risk fragmentation of economic, physical and psychological resources.

The strong interdependence between student social-emotional wellbeing and learning is now well documented ( Zins et al 2004, Durlak et al 2008) School connectedness also promotes resilience and social inclusion (Libbey 2004). A focus on academic outcomes, therefore, needs to be enhanced by an equal emphasis on the social, emotional and cognitive domains of learning and development.

A proactive whole school approach to wellbeing requires a dual focus on relational quality within schools and structured, integrated opportunities for social and emotional learning. A coordinated approach therefore would include the development of pro-social values, safe and supportive school culture, social and emotional learning for staff and students, strengths based approaches to pedagogy, and the development of positive partnerships with families, early childhood providers and youth services.. A zero tolerance approach to challenging behaviour needs to be replaced by positive and restorative approaches. Teacher Education at both pre and in-service levels needs to have a higher focus on enhancing student wellbeing and the relational skills of educators.

Summary: There are potential economic, psychological and physical benefits from a coordinated approach to wellbeing for young people. This includes short and long term benefits to the overall health of the nation and the future of Australian society.


Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., and Schellinger, (2008 in press) The Effects of Social and Emotional Learning on the Behavior and Academic Performance of School Children,

Libbey, H. (2004). Measuring Student Relationships to School: Attachment, Bonding, Connectedness, and Engagement. Journal of School Health, 74.7, 274-283.

Zins, J.E., Weissberg, R.P., Wang, M.C. & Walber, H. (2004). Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? Columbia: Teachers College Press.

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